Early this year, I attended the NIH Annual Career Symposium in Bethesda, Maryland. At the panel for science communication, Dr. Yaihara Fortis livened the room: young and articulate, she challenged my expectation of a dull day of career advice. Dr. Fortis, who works in the Career Development branch for The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS), received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Brandeis University, where she studied the neural bases of the link between taste (food preferences) and smell (olfactory cues). This work resulted in a publication in Nature Neuroscience, a feat aspired to by even tenured scientists. Read below for her generous advice and insight on life as a Scientista:
What led you to science?
YF: I’ve been fascinated by science since I was a little girl. My older sister pursued chemistry as an undergraduate. I wanted to follow her footsteps while being different… so I went for biology [laughs].
What led you to your current career? Did you know during your Ph.D. that you would pursue a career outside of academia?
YF: From my first months in grad school, I started looking for opportunities that would give me balance. I wanted to have my work cut out for me in the lab, but I also wanted opportunities related to the real world. So, I started mentoring students at Brandeis, started salsa dancing… I started anything that would give me other opportunities. It was all very organic—I never woke up, thinking, “I have to learn new skills.”
Do you think programs would ever be able to provide guidance on how to lead students to these opportunities?
YF: It has to be very individual; there is no formula. Imposing what to do onto people could be detrimental. Students should own themselves from day one. Think about the big picture: What makes you happy? What makes you uncomfortable? What are your strengths? Find areas to pursue those interests.
Which skills have you found to be most transferable and most valuable as a scientist?
YF: Well, I’m a people person. I didn’t allow academia to take that out of me. I had a lot of friends in grad school—10 people more or less—and we were pretty international. We had so many topics to discuss that had nothing to do with science. I had amazing cultural experiences because of them [Dr. Fortis found out her paper was accepted to Nature Neuroscience during a trip to India!]. Not only did this keep me sane, but also this allowed me to develop my people skills, which I consider a key transferable skill.
What parts of science did you enjoy most as a grad student?
YF: I enjoy how skeptical we are. We pursue several different ways to reach different conclusions, and I truly enjoy having this mindset as a frame of reference. Once you go out in the real world, you realize that in any scenario—big or small—you use this frame of reference to reach a solution: Grocery shopping, crossing streets, finding directions… you are always using this method. Immediately, when a problem is thrown my way, instead of panicking, I look for data [to make] a plan of action.
Conversely, what parts of science did you like least?
YF: I dislike the private culture of academia—that is, it’s not very transparent. A lot of the time, people are going through the same problems, but no one is talking about them. This leads to issues like imposter syndrome, which most scientists experience.
Since Scientista is geared towards women, how do you think institutions can increase equity and access to STEM careers for women in particular?
YF: The low hanging fruit that institutions are not taking advantage of is formal training. Training can work to [help people] challenge their own biases and understand how to respond to certain micro-aggressions. It’s important to learn how to respond—not react—to these scenarios. Also at the level of institutions, we need mechanisms of support at crucial transition points. For example, women who start families need support systems in place that will allow them to receive help, if that’s what they want and need.
In addition, we need to bring men to the table. We keep talking about diversity to diverse groups. We keep talking about gender balance to women. We must include everyone in the conversation—it will be uncomfortable, but conversation must occur for change to happen.
Finally, we can still get better at understanding and setting our value. For instance, when I’m reviewing applications, I feel a lot of the time that women don’t use assertive vocabulary to talk about themselves. Women are very humble. We need training on how to brand ourselves. When preparing reference letters, I ask the people who recommend me to send drafts of their letter. The ways people describe women (“friendly, passionate”) when compared to men (“determined, committed”) makes a huge impact on perception.
What are specific moves young women can make at the individual level in order to transition or pursue non-academic science careers?
YF: I encourage [women] to do the IDP [Individual Development Plan] early on. Once you discover what kind of career you might like to pursue, do your homework. Do informational interviews. Find mentors inside and outside of academia. Talk to men as well—men have networks we [as women] don’t have access to.
The most important advice I have is this: You have to be a good scientist. You cannot fail as a scientist. Your scientific credentials have to be impeccable to be competitive outside of academia.
How about other vulnerable populations “left out” of STEM? How do you think people should address this issue in the coming future?
YF: I’m concerned about low income or underserved communities. This community has high numbers of people who don’t have access to resources such as good schools or strong science programs. We talk about this a lot in terms of science fairs. When taking a kid to the science fair, you have to spend a lot of money and resources to put something together. There are students who don’t have money or resources but come with interesting ideas. [We need to] pay attention to this community.
Finally, what general thoughts or advice do you offer for women in STEM seeking to find success in science?
YF: Know yourself. Don’t allow anyone to change the way you see yourself. Develop self-confidence. Seek advice very early on—seek mentors of all colors, all shapes, all genders. Listen and decide what applies to you. Also, get training: leadership training, business training, other skills, assertive communication, emotional intelligence…get a lot of training!
Thanks to Dr. Fortis for her unique thoughts! Follow her on Twitter: @yfortiss.
Gabrielle-Ann Torre is a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.